Stagecoach (1939)

“Look, Miss Dallas. You got no folks… neither have I. And, well, maybe I’m takin’ a lot for granted, but… I watched you with that baby – that other woman’s baby. You looked… well, well I still got a ranch across the border. There’s a nice place – a real nice place… trees… grass… water. There’s a cabin half built. A man could live there… and a woman. Will you go?”

‘Stagecoach’, directed by John Ford in 1939, is an American Western movie starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne. Trevor plays Dallas, a sex worker who is driven out of town and joins a group of strangers travelling through Apache territory. Along the way they encounter the Ringo Kid played by Wayne, a fugitive on the run from prison and set on avenging his family. The group journey to New Mexico, but all the while the threat of ambush hangs over them. In many ways this is a chamber piece with an extraordinary stunt sequence grafted on. The threat of the Native Americans is held over the heads of the characters, but this threat is kept in the background and the Apaches are, for much of the movie, invisible and remote. This allows the main characters to develop (arguably far beyond any non-white characters in the film). Ford’s movie is surprisingly nuanced in the relationships between the characters, from the persecuted Dallas to the drive Ringo. The scenes in the coach itself are like contained version of the whole film moving from interior, almost claustrophobic scenes of conversation to exterior shots of Monument Valley and the wide open spaces the Ford is so keen on exploiting. The two highlights of the film for me are both action scenes, firstly the surprise (or at least shockingly violent) attack by the Apaches leading to a series of impossibly dangerous stunts, and secondly the tense, moody final showdown between Ringo and the villains, shot with an almost noirish sense of depth and atmosphere.

Would I recommend it? Yes – It’s not got the narrative complexity of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ or the balance of ‘The Searchers’, but it’s a tense and, at times witty, movie. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Searchers’ for more John Wayne.

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